The New Orleans Saints return to action this coming Sunday after a mini-bye that has felt, somehow, longer than their actual bye. They also return to New Orleans for the first of three home games in a row. The Saints are 4-4 and in first place, and basically the season starts now.
Last time the Saints played three consecutive regular season games at home, it was 2008, and the Saints won two of the three games. The two wins were fairly easy: the Saints beat the San Francisco 49ers by 14, and the Oakland Raiders by 31. The game in between, though, was one of the most heartbreaking regular season losses of the Sean Payton era. You may remember it.
If you chose not to relive the horrors of that evening, here's a simple recap: The Saints should have won, but a lot of stupid stuff happened, and they didn't.
What's the 2008 loss to Minnesota got to do with 2014? Nothing — and everything.
The Saints' early-season woes were mostly due to bad luck in close games. Had a handful of individual things happened differently, the Saints would be 7-1 right now, not 4-4, and the story early on would have been how impressive it was that the Saints had kept winning while they stabilized their backsliding defense. Obviously, that isn't what happened.
The Saints have played four close games and they've lost three of them. While stabilizing their season last week, the Saints left nothing to chance, and took advantage of specific weaknesses of the Green Bay Packers and Carolina Panthers to beat both teams by multiple scores.
But the Saints will find themselves back in more close games this year, and the result of those close games will determine their ultimate fate.
A lot has been made of how well — people also tend to say how "patiently" — the Saints ran the ball against Green Bay and Carolina. Their success on the ground opened up the passing game and helped Drew Brees burn both defenses with intermediate and long passes.
The truth is, the Saints ran the ball "patiently" against Green Bay and Carolina because both teams have been unable to stop the run this year. The Saints chose to attack the Packers' and Panthers' shared weakness. It's not a weakness shared by all three of the Saints' upcoming opponents, which should make multi-score victories over them tougher to attain.
The Packers and Panthers are the NFL's 30th and 32nd run defenses by yards allowed per carry. The 49ers and Baltimore Ravens are tenth and sixth. The potential problem the Saints could run into against both teams is not that Sean Payton will stubbornly abandon the run — with few exceptions, such as early during the Cleveland Browns game this season, he runs the ball when the run works — it's that neither defense will allow the Saints to run effectively. It's that the Saints will have
to attack solely through the air, as they had to when they played the Detroit Lions, and that this fact will make the games close.
And close games are usually determined by unpredictable things.
Fortunately, the Cincinnati Bengals, the second team the Saints will face on this three week tour of the Dome, have the second-worst run defense in the NFL. The Bengals share all the flaws of Green Bay and Carolina, which bodes well.
Long story short? The next three weeks in New Orleans will determine the 2014 Saints' fortunes. Going 2-1 or 3-0 against San Francisco, Cincinnati, and Baltimore will set the Saints up for not just an NFC South championship, but also for a chance to seriously contend in the NFC as a whole.